"Move back!" Kostin shouted, barely parrying a spear thrust to the gut. There were more than a score of the things, each scarcely taller than Shess but like no humanoid Kostin had ever seen. Green-skinned, bedecked with shaggy ropes of dark moss, and armed with crude spears and clubs of human bone, the naked savages fought silently, almost impassively. The sheer weight and surprise of them had pushed Kostin back until he collided with Aeventius.
"Go forward!" Aeventius snarled. A flash of light behind him attracted Kostin's attention, and he spared a quick look. Shoanti, howling for blood, were blocking the hallway that was their only exit. In the instant that Kostin turned he saw white darts of energy burst from Aeventius's wand to sear down the corridor and drop the lead thug dead, leaving black burn holes smoking in the man's chest.
Beside Kostin, Gyrd sung a low, rumbling war-ballad in the skaldic language of his people. His thick Ulfen blade rose and fell grimly, black-green liquid clinging to the steel. He dropped his shield hard down upon the skull of one of the monsters with a sickening crunch, and bulled forward with a roar, scattering the creatures with his charge and clearing a path into the shaman's sanctum.
Kostin parried another wicked jab from his opponent, and sliced his blade down along the spear shaft, lopping the creature's hands off with a snick. The thing made no sound, nor did its expression change as he pushed past it.
"They’re fungus!" Taldara shouted behind him, the twang of her crossbow punctuating her statement. "Cover your nose and mouth!"
But Kostin now had his dagger in his other hand, and was fighting in the style of the Sczarni street duelists he had so loved to emulate as a kid. His blades whistled in a tight arc around him, alternately parrying and striking, the difficulty of landing mortal blows on such diminutive opponents compensated for by their lesser reach. With a wild howl he leaped and spun among them, all fear forgotten now, or else subsumed in his desire to strike.
To his right, Gyrd fought like a juggernaut, hacking fungus-men down and ignoring any blows that landed upon his armored form. Kostin took note of their surroundings for the first time, the floor strewn with carpets and hides in a score of styles and colors, the walls bedecked with a strange intaglio of scrawled symbols, the black altar in one corner of the room shedding a weak radiance from guttering candle-stubs.
It was only then that he noticed the bodies.
They were Shoanti, clearly, or what was left of Shoanti. Each body was sticky with a mass of glistening mold, and each horribly ruptured as if it had burst from the inside. Suddenly Taldara's warning to cover their faces made sense, and Kostin dropped his dagger and riffled one-handed through his pouch for some kind of cloth. Smashing aside an attack from one of the creatures, he turned to shout a warning at Gyrd—and was just in time to see the big man disappear behind a wall of darkness in the room's far corner.
"Light!" Kostin shouted, running toward the place where he had last seen the Ulfen. A lance of pain sent him crashing to the floor, a bone-tipped spear lodged in his thigh. His sword spilled from his hand, landing with a thump on the carpet, just out of reach.
He rolled, hands held up to ward off the blow of a femur club. He could see everything in excruciating detail; the bone club brown with dried blood, poised to strike; the horrible, vacant face of the monster, a thing more plant than animal; and his own hands, held up uselessly, themselves green with the blood of these creatures.
Kostin saw too the silver blade emerge from the thing’s chest just as it was about to strike, and the unholy light go out of its eyes as Shess appeared behind it, her invisibility spell nullified by her attack.
"Stop sitting around, boss!" She tipped him a wink as the monster dropped dead at her feet. He had seen the same little girl enthusiasm in her once before, when picking flowers in a cemetery. She whirled away, blade flashing through the pack of monsters, babbling a cheerful sing-song in the strange language of gnomes.
As Kostin regained his feet and removed the miniature spear—the wound was not deep, but it bled profusely—Aeventius and Taldara were there beside him, fending off the encroaching creatures. There were around a dozen of the things left, surrounding them in a deadly noose.
"I have held the door," Aeventius said, "but it will not last forever. I think we may have a larger problem, however." The wizard gestured to the corner where Gyrd had disappeared. The unnatural darkness emanating from it had rolled back, and the object of Kostin's quest was revealed.
It stood open atop a seaman's chest, seemingly innocuous, but a dissipating cloud of particles surrounded it in a halo of death. Gyrd lay unconscious at its base among a group of ruined corpses.
"Spores," Taldara said. She had discarded her crossbow in favor of a fighting hatchet, and was laying into a pair of creatures to Kostin’s left. "We have to get to him soon!"
Suddenly it all clicked into place for Kostin. The box—not just bait for a thief, but a trap for a shaman. The Scales had set it up. Dangling a treat the Azahg could not resist, and filling it with a trap he would never be able to counter. Dispel the locks and you still had the darkness spell—and the lethal spores within. Simple; diabolical; and if it weren’t for the stupid greed of Donal Carent feeding Kostin information about such a tempting prize, he would have never been involved in this business.
"We need acid!" Aeventius was shouting at Taldara as Kostin regained focus. A creature leaped over the back of its fellows, spear leveled at the wizard's heart. Aeventius flicked a finger at it in midair, and a force equal to one of Gyrd's hammer fists smashed it in the chest and flung it back the way it had come. "Ask the imp!"
Shess was at his side, slashing with enthusiastic abandon. "Aevy!” she admonished, sounding wounded. “After all we've been through!"
"Acid?" Kostin asked Taldara, as they both danced out of the way of a flailing creature. "To kill the mold?"
"Well I don't know any acid spells either," Shess piped above the din. "I don't like that sort of thing!"
"Tal—what else do you know? How do we kill it?" Kostin was acutely aware that Aeventius's holding spell on the door wasn’t going to last much longer, and they would soon be trading one set of enemies for another.
Taldara caught the spear of a charging creature in the crook of her axe blade and pried the weapon from its hand before driving her fist into the creature's face. Mordimor leaped and slashed around her feet, his oversized claws ripping through fibrous flesh with ease. "Acid and daylight are the best ways—real light, not Aeventius’s ring."
"Not fire?" Kostin asked, driving the point of his sword through the midsection of one of the monsters.
"No," Taldara answered. "Daylight. Acid. And... alcohol. But something hard, high proof stuff."
With a barking laugh, Kostin remembered the leather skin he had confiscated from Gyrd. Judging from the smell of it, it was strong enough to strip paint. Without hesitation he sheathed his weapon and sprang for the box in the corner, wineskin in one hand, the other holding a cloth over his nose and mouth.
"Don't get close!" Taldara shouted behind him, but Kostin saw no other choice. Muttering a prayer to Cayden Cailean, the god of drunks and heroes, he moved in, skin held out at arm's length, the black box that had been the cause of all his problems fixed in his sight.
When he was close enough to see the reddish stuff—clinging to what looked like a clay shingle sitting serenely in the otherwise empty interior of the box—the world suddenly exploded in a cloud of dust.
"The only thing worse than fighting one of these things is becoming one."
Spores. Kostin screwed his eyes tight against them and held his breath beneath the cloth. It suddenly, stupidly occurred to him that this just might be the last thing he ever did.
Not only that, but he might just get everyone else killed in the process. Everyone that was here because of him.
Moving by memory, he lunged forward on his wounded leg, ignoring the bolt of pain that shot up his thigh and the blood squelching in his boot. Reaching what he hoped was the right spot, he upended the strong spirits into the box. For what seemed an eternity he squeezed the skin, lungs hot as forge coals bursting in his chest. The skin of his face and hands tingled unnaturally.
The jack was empty and Kostin dropped it, staggering away while waving his arms and slapping his face and clothing to rid himself of any spores that might have clung to him.
He opened his eyes. The dead creatures all lay heaped in still mounds around his exhausted friends. Kostin smiled, a ready quip on the tip of his tongue, just as the door banged open at the other end of the room.
His smile evaporated as the vanguard of the Shoanti mob poured into the sanctum. But a crazy notion seized him in the same moment, and he rushed to meet the gang, arms spread wide and teeth bared.
"Behold the vengeance of the Night Scales!" Kostin bellowed in a voice that sounded like the arrival of a god.
The Shoanti froze.
Kostin grinned his most intimidating of grins, conscious of the fact that he was covered in green ichor and spore dust. He pointed at the bodies that littered the rooms, both the horribly mutilated corpses of the Shoanti shaman and his women, and those of the strange fungus people.
"Thus do those who cross us die: souless and damned for all time. Come to me and join your master in Urgathoa's belly—or flee the city tonight!" Kostin roared, ranting like a stage villain.
Behind him Shess murmured, and a ghostly image appeared between Kostin and the Shoanti. It was vaguely man-shaped and glowed with its own inner light.
"Witness his agonies as I wrack his soul!" Kostin howled, throwing both hands into the air. Before him the image writhed and flickered like a storm-blown candle flame.
It was a stampede. The Shoanti, all will to fight broken, scrambled for the door. Their howls had turned into those of whipped dogs, and reverberated down the hallway until they were well out of sight.
Shess giggled, her illusion winking out of existence.
Taldara moved instantly to Gyrd's side, the threat from the spores extinguished by the Ulfen’s own potent draught. She searched frantically through her small pack, discarding a slew of items strange and sundry, before snatching up what she had sought. She brought the small phial to the Ulfen's bearded lips, and tilted it down.
"That should kill the spores, but he’s still going to hurt like hell. Maybe if we get this mail off, two of us will be able to manage him." She wiped sweat from her forehead.
"Let us be away from here first," Aeventius said. Producing a pinch of coarse, brown hair from his pouch, he intoned the words of a spell. His ring flashed.
Walking over to the massive warrior, Aeventius bent down and hoisted him onto his shoulder with barely a grunt. "Although," he said casually, chainmailed form balanced on his shoulder as easily as if it had been a child, "if we run into anything more dangerous than another locked door this evening, I am of no more use."
They moved quickly back the way they had come, not daring to explore the complex any further in case some of the Shoanti returned, and everyone aware that Aeventius's unnatural strength could only last for a few minutes.
They encountered no one. Retracing their steps to the same alleyway where they had ambushed the first pair of guards, Aeventius set his burden down unceremoniously. Taldara dashed away, intent on hiring a horse or mule from the livery yard on Kindrucker Street. Kostin moved to accompany her, but Aeventius pushed past him with alarming intensity, saying something about not being left behind with “the imp.”
Kostin sighed and slipped down next to Gyrd’s sleeping form. He straightened his wounded leg, tightening the hasty bandage that was half-soaked through with blood. "Looks like this was a wash. Lucky you got paid up front in Sczarni silver, right little one?"
Shess shrugged, trying to adjust her overlarge spectacles, which had been bent in the fight. With a pout she plucked them from her button nose and pitched them into the dark.
"Oh, I don't know,” she said, a grin sneaking over her face. "It was interesting. Plus we get equal shares of this thing I grabbed off the altar."
From her pouch, Shess produced a sun-bleached goat's skull. It would have been hideous if it were not for the dozens of fine-cut gemstones clustered around its golden eye sockets.
Kostin threw his head back and laughed. For the first time in seemingly forever, he really meant it.
Coming Next Week: Assassination in the markets of Katapesh in Steven Savile’s “Blood and Money.”
Bill Ward is the author of more than 40 short stories for venues like Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Every Day Fiction, Morpheus Tales, Rogue Blades Entertainment, and more, as well as game work for companies such as i-Kore and Urban Mammoth. A diehard fan of pulp adventure, he’s also an editor at the flagship sword and sorcery magazine Black Gate. For more information, visit his website at billwardwriter.com.